Middle School Morass

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

The latest report from the U. S. Department of Education shows that in a one-to-one comparative study of public and private school students, the latter are more literate.

“In grades 4 and 8 for both reading and mathematics, students in private schools achieved at higher levels than students in public schools,” according to The Nation’s Report Card, a U. S. Department of Education publication. “The average difference
in school means ranged from almost 8 points for grade 4 mathematics, to about 18 points for grade 8 reading.”

“The average differences were all statistically significant.” These results are consistent with the findings of independent researchers and do not even note the edge that private school students have later in college entrance examination scores. But the researchers go on to look at the differences after factoring out variables such as “gender, race/ethnicity, disability status, and identification as an English language learner.”

“Adjusting the comparisons for student characteristics resulted in reductions in all four average differences of approximately 11 to 14 points,” the DOE’s National Assessment of Education Progress found. “Based on adjusted school means, the average for public schools was significantly higher than the average for private schools for grade 4 mathematics, while the average for private schools was significantly higher than the average for public schools for grade 8 reading.”

So, putting the best possible spin on the results, there is still an advantage for private school students in reading that occurs between grade 4 and grade 8, raising the intriguing question of what happens during those crucial years in public middle schools that makes the difference between literacy and illiteracy.

Author Cheri Pierson Yecke offered some first-hand insights on American middle schools that may provide part of the answer to that question. “As a middle school teacher, I became increasingly frustrated with administrative policies that were implemented by fiat with the solemn declaration that ‘this is good for kids because everyone is doing it,’” Yecke wrote in The War on Excellence: The Rising Tide in Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools. “Trendy new policies, such as the widespread elimination of ability grouping, the dumbing down of the curriculum, and a wholesale embrace of cooperative learning and peer pressure, were not good for all kids—and I didn’t care who else was ‘doing it.’”

“As a mom and as a teacher, I knew intuitively that these practices did not serve the best interests of all children, and I wondered where they were coming from.” She was in a good position to find out. She had served as an education official in two states and at the federal level.

“Was this some sort of secret conspiracy?,” she asks. “Not at all—in documents such as professional education journals, middle-school activists were quite clear about their non-academic goals.” Yecke, who has encountered such activists as both a teacher and as an administrator, offers plenty of examples. For instance:

• “With virtually no increase of brain size and mass in the large majority of 12- to 14-year-olds, there is no growth in the capacity of the brain to handle more complex thinking processes usually introduced in grades seven and eight,” two professors wrote in a publication of the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development in 1978.

• “Until a major reorganization occurs that results in cultural, political, and economic equity for all groups or until a major reconstruction of schooling takes place in which the educational process encourages individuals to refuse to tolerate an unequal social system, more limited reforms should be attempted to help equalize the effects of schooling,” Rand Corporation social scientist Jeanne Oakes wrote in 1985.

• “Schools are about the redistribution of future wealth,” middle school activist Paul George wrote in 1995. “That’s what they’re about. They’re not about talent development. They’re not about taking each child as far as he or she can go.”

It should be noted that while serving on the Virginia Board of Higher Education, Yecke crafted the Dominion State’s Standards of Learning exams. The introduction of those tests, which the state public school teacher’s unions detest, preceded an increase in standardized exam scores among Virginia students.

Yecke’s book came out in 2003 after she had served in both the Virginia and U. S. Departments of Education. Not too surprisingly, the Minnesota Middle School Association fought her next appointment, as the state’s Commissioner of Education.

The Association and its allies were ultimately successful as the state assembly voted Yecke out of office on a straight party line vote. She moved on from there to serve as Chancellor for K-12 education for the state of Florida.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.